Vertical Farming

Dickson Despommier
Vertical Farming
Feeding the World in the 21st Century
New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2010
(Kindle Edition)



A very important book in a time when traditional agriculture produces more waste than good, and is actually at the root of all our environmental concerns. It consumes 10 times as much water than vertical farming and is responsible for the degradation of our environment with chemical toxics.

This book is timely to show that vertical urban farming is the way out of the food chain impasse in which we are caught worldwide. It is nothing less than a paradigm change in food production and the feeding of our populations. Instead of bringing produce to the cities, spending lots of CO2 and factoring in a deterioration of the produce over the miles and miles it has to move, we move the agriculture into the cities. This makes sense as by 2050, 70% of the world population will live in cities.

And this postmodern horticulture is soil-free, and it only consumes 10% the amount of water consumed in traditional farming. It is ecological, sustainable, and can be highly customized to satisfy the taste of customers, bringing in the aesthetic dimension through manipulating and developing flavinoids.

As it is my review custom, I shall provide quotes here from the book that I consider as the most important in the book’s overall messaage. As this is a Kindle edition, I could not put any page numbers however.

Dr. Dickson Despommier
Dr. Dickson Despommier


—Fifteen thousand years ago, there was not a single farm on the planet. (…) Yet our journey from hunter-gatherers to urban dwellers still hasn’t produced a single metropolis that is truly healthy to live in. As populations grew and urban life became the norm, our habit for producing mountains of waste began to take its toll. Garbage provided sustenance for a wide variety of peri-domestic diseases that emerged and then became endemic.

—One of the most pressing reasons to consider converting to urban agriculture relates to how we currently view and handle agricultural waste. In fact, we don’t handle it at all. Agricultural runoff is responsible for more ecosystem disruption than any other single kind of pollution.

—Once we have transformed our urban centers, we can turn our attention to renewing the hardwood forests that we destroyed in our heal to create the farmlands that now produce food for our cities.

—Sustainable urban life is technologically achievable, and most important, highly desirable. For example, food waste can easily be converted back into energy employing clean state-of-the-art incineration technologies, and wastewater can be converted back into drinking water. For the first time in history, an entire city can choose to become the functional urban equivalent of a natural ecosystem.

—Repairing the environment and still having enough food, healthy food choices may seem like mutually exclusive goals. If the world’s population continues to increase, wouldn’t we need to cut down even more forest to produce enough food to feed everyone? Not necessarily. One solution lies in vertical farms. These farms would raise food without soil in specially constructed buildings. When farms are successfully moved to cities, we can convert significant amounts of farmland back into whatever ecosystem was there originally, simply by leaving it alone.

—Vertical farms are immune to weather and other natural elements that can abort food production. Crops can be grown under carefully selected and well-monitored conditions that ensure optimal growth rates for each species of plant and animal year-round. In other words, there are no seasons indoors. The efficiency of each floor of a vertical farm, one acre in footprint, could be equivalent to as many aas ten to twenty traditional soil-based acres, depending upon the crop. Vertical farms offer many environmental benefits as well. Farming indoors eliminates the need for fossil fuels now used for plowing, applying fertilizer, seeding, weeding, and harvesting.

—The ingredients in the dinner you just ate at your favorite restaurant likely came from more than fifteen hundred miles away. If you had a vertical farm in your city, all the food on your plate could come from down the block, having huge amounts of fossil fuel now used to refrigerate and ship produce from all over the world. Also, think of what happens to the food you left on your plate. These leftovers, plus the waste generated in the food-preparation process, are currently nonrecoverable costs—also known as dinner for vermin. Now imagine if this organic waste could be converted back into energy. This would allow restaurants to be paid for the recoverable energy from their waste streams. An industry with a notoriously small (2-5 percent) profit margin would be able to earn additional income without raising the prices on its menus.

—The most pressing case for urban agriculture lies in our failure to handle waste, in particular agricultural runoff (leftover irrigation water laden with pesticides, herbicides, fertilizer, and silt). Agriculture is responsible for more ecosystem disruption than any other kind of pollution.

—Today, nearly 50% of us choose to live in cities and surrounding suburbs. These crowded urban centers rely heavily on importing food, ores, and other essential resources. If we continue to rely on harvesting resources from an environment we have created, whose production is solely dependent on using more and more fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides, those forced ecological situations will soon fail and we will be left stranded. In fact, many agricultural regions are already failing, and others are soon to follow.

—Vertical farming practiced on a large scale in urban centers holds the promise that sustainable urban life is not only possible but highly desirable and technologically achievable. With all the advances made over the last ten years in the sustainable use of resources, a city can now choose to become a functional urban equivalent of a natural ecosystem by employing high-tech versions of waste-to-energy strategies, food production, and water-recovery systems.

Dr. Dickson Despommier
Dr. Dickson Despommier

—Ideally, vertical farms should be cheap to build, modular, durable, easily maintained, and safe to operate. They should also be independent of economic subsidies and outside support once they are up and running, which means they should generate income for the owners.

—High-tech greenhouse farming is already being developed in many places around the world, most notably in New Zealand, the Netherlands, Germany, England, Australia, Canada, and the United States. Hydroponics, aeroponics, and drop-irrigation methods have improved vastly over the last ten years, to the point of revolutionizing the ways in which we can produce indoor crops at will. Large-scale commercial indoor facilities located in Arizona, England, and the Netherlands have proven to be highly profitable. The only missing element is urbanization of the concept. Reengineering greenhouses from a horizontal footprint to one that conserves space by stacking them on top of each other is all that is needed to bring them into the city proper. Abandoned urban spaces can then be fully utilized. In addition, vertical farms of varying heights can be constructed to meet the needs of restaurants, school cafeterias, hospitals, and apartment complexes. Some stand-alone vertical farms will also surely be built for mass production of essential crops such as rice, wheat, corn, and other grains, even crops for the production of biodiesel.

—A city-based agricultural system would allow us to carry out our lives without further damaging the environment. In fact, by relieving a sizable portion of the land of its food-production obligations, we would become two-time winners; we’d still get our food, and we would begin to regenerate the ecological services we unwittingly forfeited when we encroached into natural systems for the sake of our own benefit without any thought to much else.

—Advantages of the Vertical Farm
1. Year-round crop production
2. No weather-related crop failures
3. No agricultural runoff
4. Allowance for ecosystem restoration
5. No use of pesticides, herbicides, or fertilizers
6. Use of 70-95 percent less water
7. Greatly reduced food miles
8. More control of food safety and security
9. New employment opportunities
10. Purification of grey water to drinking water
11. Animal feed from postharvest plant material

—Today, traditional agriculture uses around 70 percent of all the available freshwater on earth, and in doing so pollutes it, rendering it unusable for those living downstream. In contrast, hydroponic, and more recently aeroponic agricultural technologies have revolutionized the way water is used to grow plants without the damaging side effects of agricultural runoff. When these two methods are employed in ‘closed loop,’ or self-contained, systems, a huge amount of water is conserved, up to 95 percent in some extreme cases.

—Setting up a hydroponic facility is largely constrained by the kind of crop one wants to produce. The configuration is determined by the root system of the plant. The liquid portion of the operation is pumped slowly through a specially constructed pipe, usually made of a plastic such as polyvinyl chloride (or PVC), through it’s not a requirement that plastic be used. Bamboo in various diameters could also serve the purpose quite well, and since it’s one of the toughest natural materials we know of, bamboo would be ideally suited. (…) Once the piping is set up, nutrients are dissolved into the water phase and circulated through the piping, all the while being electronically monitored for concentrations of each element and organic nitrogen. The result is uniform plant growth under optimal conditions.

—The vertical farm is a neighborhood concept couched in futuristic terms, but with a homespun intent.

—In its most complete configuration, the vertical farm will consist of a complex of buildings constructed in close proximity to one another. They will include a building for growing food; offices for management; a separate control center for monitoring the overall running of the facility; a nursery for selecting and germinating seeds; a quality-control laboratory to monitor food safety, document the nutritional status of each crop, and monitor for plant diseases; a building for the vertical farm workforce; and eco-education/tourist center for the general public; a green market; and eventually a restaurant.

—The vertical farm is the keystone enterprise for establishing an urban-based ecosystem. Without food production, no city can emulate the virtues of a functional, intact ecosystem: Bioproductivity is key for both. It is the defining mechanism for energy management of all living organisms. Yet, if the city can supply itself with at last 50-80 percent of its agricultural needs, then lots of other sustainable activities become achievable, allowing its citizens to capture and reuse the energy of their own metabolic products and reclaim the grey water.

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Horticulture / Vertical Farming / Urban Farming

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